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How the Pandemic Transformed Working: States & MSAs with Most Telecommuters

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Key Takeaways

  • One-third of all Americans older than 18 worked from home during the pandemic — a 916% increase compared to 2019.
  • States and metros that were prepared for the digital economy saw large swaths of workers transition to remote work during the pandemic, including 62% of the population in the District of Columbia.
  • Metros with large shares of telecommuters in the last year include Boston with 52%, Seattle with 51% and San Francisco with 49%.

It’s March 2020. After being a side thought at the beginning of the year, COVID-19 has taken over every conversation and news broadcast. As cases mounted, state-wide stay-at-home orders were declared and all non-essential activity either moved online or was halted completely.

Now, one year later, the economy is recovering and unemployment is bouncing back, but telecommuting is still the norm. And, while it’s not yet clear when and how a safe return to the office will be possible, we can look back and begin to analyze which areas in the nation saw the most workers transition to telecommuting due to the pandemic.

Using experimental data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s weekly Household Pulse Survey, we looked at how many Americans substituted in-person work for telecommuting during the pandemic. We were able to determine which states and metros had the largest share of their populations move their work online. We also looked at how different demographics adapted to the new work-from-home norm. To that end, we found that, while one in three Americans worked remotely during the last year, the switch to remote work wasn’t equally smooth everywhere and for everyone. Keep reading to learn more.

1 in 3 Americans Worked from Home in the Last Year, Telecommuters Grow 900% Between 2019 and 2020


In 2019, there were an estimated 8.9 million remote workers in the U.S. The following year, as non-essential businesses moved online to curb the spread of COVID-19, the number of telecommuters skyrocketed to 91 million — an increase of 916% from the previous year. This also means that 36.6% of all adult Americans worked remotely at some point during the pandemic.

However, due to factors such as differences in the number of essential workers or how many jobs could be moved online, COVID-19 did not affect all states to the same extent. For example, in Rhode Island, more than 352,000 people worked remotely in the last year — an increase of 1,358% compared to the 24,000 telecommuters in 2019. As such, Rhode Island was the state with the largest percentage growth in remote workers.

Next up in the top three were Mississippi and Maryland, up 1,257% and 1,235%, respectively. Conversely, the state with the smallest percentage growth was South Dakota, where the number of telecommuters grew by a still sizable 509% between 2019 and 2020.

Meanwhile, in Colorado — which already had a growing number of remote workers prior to the pandemic — digital nomads reached 274,000 in 2019. Then, as a result of the pandemic, that number reached just under 2 million of the approximately 5.7 million people living in the state. Notably, because of the large number of remote workers located in Colorado even before the pandemic, the percentage growth here between 2019 and 2020 is among the smallest on the list at 619%, although the state was and still is a hot spot for remote work. Florida and Arizona are in similar situations, with 709% and 721% growth, respectively, in the number of remote workers.

62% of D.C. Population Worked Remotely During Pandemic, Followed by Maryland & Massachusetts


Granted, the variations between states in number of telecommuters — both before and during the pandemic — depend on certain factors, such as the share of jobs that can easily transition into remote work models.

So, it comes as no surprise that 62% of people older than 18 in Washington, D.C. worked remotely during the pandemic because its economy hinges on office-using sectors, such as business, finance and government. As a result, of its working-age population of 542,000, nearly 340,000 people worked remotely here.

The next-closest was neighboring Maryland, where just under half of the adult population has telecommuted since the pandemic was declared. Closing out the top three was another East Coast state — Massachusetts — with 47% of people working from home here.

As expected, the top of the list is comprised of states with strong business, tech and government sectors, as these occupations can more easily be moved online. However, on the opposite end of the list are states like West Virginia, Mississippi and Louisiana, which have been more affected by the pandemic due to a larger share of vulnerable jobs in sectors such as manufacturing, transportation and resource extraction.

Further west in Utah and Washington, 46% and 45% of people worked remotely, respectively. Utah appeared on the list just after Maryland and Massachusetts — two East Coast states with a tradition of office-using industries — and above Washington, with its robust tech sector. This underscores the ongoing transformation of Utah’s economy — which was previously based on industry and manufacturing — to its modern-day reputation as a tech hotspot. In fact, Silicon Slopes — a burgeoning tech corridor for office space in Salt Lake City — is one of the hottest and most competitive alternatives to Silicon Valley’s high costs. Moreover, COVID-19’s uneven effect on different areas and sectors of the economy may accelerate existing trends such as Utah’s shift toward tech.

More than Half of Workers in D.C., Boston & Seattle Metros Telecommuted in 2020


When analyzing the number of remote workers by metro area, Washington, D.C. stands out as the winner once again, although by a smaller margin than in the state ranking. In particular, 55% of the working population in the D.C. metro — which also includes suburbs in Maryland and Virginia —substituted the commute to their D.C. office spaces with telework.

Further north, of Boston’s 3.6 million people aged 18 and older, 1.9 million — or 52% of the metro’s population — had a “30-second commute” in 2020. Just one other metro had more than half of its workers move online: In Seattle, 51% of adults telecommuted, meaning that just under 1.7 million of its residents transitioned from working from their office spaces in Seattle to telecommuting.

Similarly, New York City — the first area in the U.S. to face the full scale of COVID-19 in March of last year — was placed under full lockdown as part of the PAUSE strategy. Here, over the course of the last year, 42% of people living in the metro worked remotely, which is on par with Atlanta and Chicago.

Working from Home: Difficult for Older Workers & People with Lower Educational Attainment


While remote work was widely adopted during the pandemic, some demographics were unable to transition their work online or find a job that they could do from home. And, the largest disparity appeared between workers of different levels of educational attainment. For instance, people with a bachelor’s degree or higher were able to transition to working from home relatively easily, as 61% of this demographic said they worked remotely during the pandemic. At the same time, just one out of five people with only a high school diploma or a GED reported having teleworked since March 2020. Notably, the two demographic groups are almost equal in number with around 75.6 million people each. However, while 45.97 million college graduates worked online, only 14.8 million workers with a high school diploma had managed to make the switch.


Likewise, the three youngest age groups — 18-24, 25-39 and 40-54 — adapted well to the pandemic, with 43% to 44% of them transitioning to telework. However, among those aged 55 and older, just 25% have worked online since March of last year. This means that, among 97.5 million people in this age group, only one in four could work from home during the lockdown — even though they are also more vulnerable to COVID-19 than younger individuals.

The pandemic has changed the way we live, including how we work. Before COVID-19, few people could imagine that more than one-third of Americans would soon be working from home. While desk jobs moved from office spaces to living rooms and studies, other sectors were hit hard. And, while it’s not yet clear when and how a safe return to the office will be possible, we can be confident that working won’t look the same after 2020’s forced work-from-home experiment.

Methodology

  • Nationwide remote work data for 2019 was extracted from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS).
  • Estimates for the number of people who worked remotely during the pandemic, as well as demographic data, were extracted from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey (HPS) (Phase 3, Week 23, January 20 – February 1, the latest data at the time of our analysis). The HPS includes only people 18 years of age and older.
  • HPS respondents were asked if any adults in their household, including themselves, substituted some or all of their in-person work with telework during the pandemic. They could choose: (1) Yes, at least one adult substituted some or all of their typical in-person work for telework; (2) No, no adults substituted their typical in-person work for telework; or (3) No, there has been no change in telework. As such, respondents choosing option (3) could include those who were already unemployed, retired or telecommuting prior to the pandemic.
  • The Census Bureau notes that this data is experimental, and users should take caution when using estimates based on subpopulations of the data, as sample sizes may be small and the standard errors may be large.

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